Charlie Chaplin Finds Comedy Even in the Brutality of WWI: A Scene from Shoulder Arms (1918)

A friend of the Roman poet Mar­tial once asked him why he went to watch lions devour slaves at the Col­i­se­um. “These are my times,” replied Mar­tial, “and I must know them.” Not every Roman enjoyed such bru­tal spec­ta­cles, and Mar­tial him­self per­haps least of all, but he regard­ed it as a duty as an observ­er and inter­preter not to spare him­self the awful sight that pleased so many of his fel­low cit­i­zens. Char­lie Chap­lin, too, knew his times, as evi­denced by pic­tures like 1936’s Mod­ern Times, which made light of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism, and The Great Dic­ta­tor, his sharp 1940 satire of Nazism and fas­cism.

But the hor­rors of the pre­vi­ous World War gave him mate­r­i­al too, as you can see in this scene from the 1918 silent com­e­dy Shoul­der Arms, above: “There have been learned dis­cus­sions as to whether Chap­lin’s com­e­dy is low or high, artis­tic or crude,” said the con­tem­po­rary New York Times review of the film, Chap­lin’s most pop­u­lar to date, “but no one can deny that when he imper­son­ates a screen fool he is fun­ny.”

His screen fool, in this case, has enlist­ed in the “awk­ward squad,” and though boot camp gives him a hard time, the prat­falls he goes through when sent off to Europe even­tu­al­ly lead him to win the Great War almost sin­gle­hand­ed­ly. Alas, as with most of Chap­lin’s hap­less pro­tag­o­nists, his moment of tri­umph van­ish­es even more quick­ly than it came, and at the time of its pre­miere the real war still had weeks to go.

Before mak­ing the movie, Chap­lin him­self had doubts about the poten­tial for humor in the blood­i­est con­flict in the his­to­ry of mankind, but he must have ulti­mate­ly under­stood what all the most astute come­di­ans do: that com­e­dy and tragedy have always gone hand-in-hand. “Say­ing some­thing is too ter­ri­ble to joke about is like say­ing a dis­ease is to ter­ri­ble to try to cure,” as the par­tic­u­lar­ly astute Louis C.K. recent­ly put it — a man of our own comedic and trag­ic times, and one who cer­tain­ly knows them as well as Chap­lin knew his.

Find 65 Free Char­lie Chap­lin Films Online in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

via Red­dit

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Char­lie Chap­lin Gets Strapped into a Dystopi­an “Rube Gold­berg Machine,” a Fright­ful Com­men­tary on Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism

Char­lie Chap­lin Does Cocaine and Saves the Day in Mod­ern Times (1936)

Chap­lin Meets Incep­tion: The Final Speech of The Great Dic­ta­tor

When Char­lie Chap­lin Entered a Chap­lin Look-Alike Con­test and Came in 20th Place

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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